DUNEDIN, Fla. — Kevin Kiermaier has the same conversation whenever he meets a player he’s going to share the outfield with. And even though it almost always evokes a confused reaction, the new Toronto Blue Jays centrefielder never shies away from the discussion.
“Any time I talk to new outfielders about it, guys are like, ‘Oh I’ve never heard of that before,’” Kiermaier said. “Guys look at me a little weird, but I’m like, ‘Look, it’s not complicated. Just hear me out. It works, I’m telling you.’”
The 32-year-old signed a one-year, $9-million deal with the Blue Jays this past December after spending his entire 10-year career with the Tampa Bay Rays. He arrives with a certified reputation as one the best defensive outfielders in the sport, having collected three Gold Gloves while leading all centrefielders with 71 Outs Above Average during the Statcast Era.
He’s set to be flanked by George Springer in right field and December-trade acquisition Daulton Varsho in left — a unique situation because all three are bona fide centrefielders. Players manning the position are typically tasked with taking charge in the outfield and pursuing balls more aggressively than the corner fielders.
However, Kiermaier figures his “unorthodox” method will flourish with the Blue Jays’ talented alignment. The passionate defender shared his thoughts during a long conversation inside the clubhouse at the Blue Jays’ player development complex Friday morning, hours before his club shut out the Boston Red Sox, 2-0, during Grapefruit League action in Fort Myers, Fla.
When Kiermaier was in the lower levels of the Rays’ minor-league system he encountered a few situations where balls dropped in between himself and the left- or right-fielder. Typically, players are taught to call out, “I got it,” for the ball when it’s in the air, but there can be a tricky grey area when it’s hit in the middle of two players and nobody yells out.
“Guys were like, ‘I thought you were going to catch it,’ and I was over there thinking the same thing,” said Kiermaier. “We’re both in the wrong together. And then I said to myself, ‘What can I do to fix this?’”
He improvised a system: As soon as Kiermaier realized he was not going to be able to snag a ball in the air, he’d empathically point to his fellow outfielder and yell, “You, you, you,” then proceed to back them up. If he intended to pursue the ball, he’d stay focused on it and that would be a signal for the other player to back off.
“Sometimes we’re just running for the ball that’s perfectly placed in between us and then we’re just kind of waiting for the other guy to call it. You got to take initiative,” he said.
“It allows them to be in an aggressive mindset right away rather than thinking, ‘Oh, I got Kiermaier next to me. He wants to catch everything.’ I just want them to know as soon as possible.”
Kiermaier believes his method — which requires one of the outfielders involved in the play to quickly glance at the other — removes any chance of a collision and also negates the effects of crowd noise. Phrasing is critical when a stadium’s decibel levels rise and that’s why he points instead of using the term, “You got it.” It can be too easily confused with “I got it.”
He perfected the method while in the minors and finally broke into the big-leagues as the Rays’ right-fielder in 2014. Desmond Jennings was the centrefielder for most of that season and thus, leader of the defence. But once Kiermaier took over the position in late August, he implemented his way and never looked back.
Devon White laughs when told about Kiermaier’s system.
What was it like in his day?
“I just say, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it,’” White responded with a smile.
The Blue Jays special assistant to player development was a premier centrefielder in his own right, capturing seven Gold Gloves while winning three World Series rings, two of which were with the Blue Jays.
The “I got it” way was how White was taught, but he said an outfield’s composition can dictate how much a centrefielder is relied upon to chase down balls in the gaps. The Blue Jays’ current alignment is comprised of three aggressive, athletic fielders. Meanwhile, at one point in his career, White was part of a troika with the offence-first Joe Carter and Dave Winfield.
“They were like, ‘Hey, you take it, I’mma do the hitting and then you catch those balls,’” said White. “Because they were big guys on the corner and I never wanted to run into them, there were times where I would take balls from the right fielder or the left fielder. We’d laugh about it and I’m like, ‘Hey that’s what I do. If I can catch it, I’m going to catch it.’”
Kiermaier says he’s studied how other teams operate and hasn’t observed anybody do it his way. He’s also constantly asking teammates and opposing players about what they’ve been taught in the past.
When he had his initial conversation with Varsho on the subject, Kiermaier was met with a familiar reaction.
“I’ve never really done that,” Varsho said. “But, it’s actually a really easy way to communicate because obviously with 40,000 fans in the stands, you’re not able to yell and scream and the person is not going to be able to hear you.
“[Kiermaier’s system] makes it a whole lot easier.”
Varsho has spent over one third of his major-league games in centrefield and built his own impressive reputation as a defender, backed by an Outs Above Average that ranked in the 99th percentile in 2022. This spring, though, he’s adjusting to a different position in addition to new outfield mates. He plans to spend plenty of time with Kiermaier, ironing out the “system” during batting practice and during games.
“We got dudes out there who want to make plays and who have a very aggressive mindset,” said Kiermaier. “Those are the guys I want to play next to. And we’re going to be great this year. We’re going to be one of the best, if not the best outfield. That’s what I’m aiming for defensively.”
Kiermaier has only encountered one person who strongly pushed back against his technique during his career. He declines to reveal the player, but said for some reason, it just didn’t work for the individual, so they had to determine a workaround.
For every other outfield partner, though, it’s worked just fine.
“I’m unorthodox with my teaching, but I know that unorthodox works,” said Kiermaier. “I don’t have to go by the book.”